Isolation and Closeness: Iphigénie en Tauride at the Hamburgische Staatsoper

Gluck – Iphigénie en Tauride

Iphigénie – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Oreste – Viktor Rud
Pylade – Rainer Trost
Thoas – Alexey Tikhomirov
Première prêtresse – Ines Krebs
Deuxième prêtresse – Kathrin von der Chevallerie
Diane – Katja Pieweck
Un Scythe – Daniel Todd
Le Ministre – Zak Kariithi
Une femme grecque – Anat Edri

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Ensemble Resonanz / Riccardo Minasi.
Stage director – Philippe Calvario

Staatsoper Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.  Sunday, October 9th, 2016.

As so often it seems, one waits years for an Iphigénie en Tauride to come along and suddenly three come at once.  Earlier this year I saw an intelligent and respectably-sung staging by English Touring Opera that sadly I was unable to review at the time.  Later this year Paris sees a revival of Warlikowski’s staging.  Tonight Hamburg offered us a revival of Philippe Calvario’s 2009 production.  On paper it certainly promised much with the excellent Riccardo Minasi conducting a fine period band, one of the leading tragédiennes and several other fine singers.

Photo: © Jörn Kipping
Photo: © Jörn Kipping

There were certainly some intelligent touches to the production.  The relationship between Oreste and Pylade was nicely mapped, the tenderness and love between the characters evident.  As Pylade sings ‘ton cœur au mien n’est pas fermé peut-être’, he reaches out to caress Oreste who rejects him conflicted about how to resolve the situation they find themselves in.  There was a believable tenderness there that I found most convincing.  Likewise the closeness between the two contrasted well with the isolation that Iphigénie finds herself in.  She was portrayed as a loner, someone who didn’t really engage with anyone else and her search for resolution was always put to the fore.  Certainly in both of these aspects I found the staging most successful.  The problem is that it seemed Calvario wanted to add additional layers that cluttered the narrative, and to this viewer at least, added little in understanding of the work.  Sets (Jon Morrell) were industrial, seemingly illustrating the inside of a ship with bridges that were able to rise and fall on occasion.  Often the fact that something is possible doesn’t mean that it’s necessary.  I thought of that as Iphigénie sang ‘ô malheureuse Iphigénie’ and was hoisted up and down in the air for no apparent reason.  I enjoy seeing shirtless, buff sailors grabbing a piece of meat as much as the next man but their presence didn’t particularly illuminate the opening chorus for me.  The ballets were accompanied by shouting from the stage which drowned out an otherwise excellent musical performance.  For Calvario there is no conventional lieto fine.  The closing chorus is accompanied by people randomly falling to the floor and jumping back up again but then he asks the band to reprise the very opening measures of Act 1 as everyone leaves the stage, leaving Oreste alone watching over an empty scene.  It’s an idea that has merit but I can’t say that I was convinced of it musically.

Photo: © Jörn Kipping
Photo: © Jörn Kipping

Musically, I found the evening to be as mixed as it was dramatically.  Anna Caterina Antonacci was an intense and highly-strung Iphigénie.  She threw herself into the role acting with undeniable energy and commitment.  She isn’t, it must be said, in the first flush of vocal youth and as a result the voice tonight sounded worn and frayed.  At times, in the more declamatory passages she resorted to a kind of sprechgesang.  She does however have an implicit understanding of how this music goes and while ends of longer phrases had a tendency to taper off, her sense of phrasing was undeniable.  She even added some beautiful ornamentation in ‘ô toi qui prolongeas mes jours’.   The role was sung off the text with impeccable diction.  Nevertheless, what I missed was a classical beauty in her singing to match that of the band.  Others may feel her sheer dramatic commitment compensates for the vocal rough edges however.

Photo: © Jörn Kipping
Photo: © Jörn Kipping

Rainer Trost’s Pylade certainly offered much in the way of classical beauty in his singing.  His glorious aria ‘unis dès la plus tendre enfance’ was lovingly sung with the line caressed with the utmost tenderness, a milky-smooth legato not to mention a genuine trill.  It really felt that Trost was singing that music as if it had been written for him.  His diction is good – perhaps some of the diphthongs could have been sharpened somewhat, but that might also be a question of vocal production and the placement of the voice.  Both he and Viktor Rud’s Oreste had undeniable chemistry with each other and both mapped their characters’ journeys in a moving and convincing way.  Rud is the owner of a handsome light, high baritone.  His isn’t the largest voice to have essayed this music but he never sang beyond his means.  He was heroic when required in ‘dieux qui me poursuivez’ but also found real tenderness as he recognized Iphigénie.  Rud is undoubtedly a singer I would like to hear again.

Photo: © Jörn Kipping
Photo: © Jörn Kipping

Alexey Tikhomirov sang Thoas with a big, luxurious bass with an attractive, fruity vibrato that had excellent resonance in the middle and bottom but lost colour towards the top.  The remainder of the cast reflected the admirable standards expected at this address but diction in the supporting cast was rather cloudy.  The ladies of the chorus were excellent, singing with good blend and richness of tone.  The gentlemen were also very good.  The presence of a period instrument orchestra was a real luxury in this music.  The piquant oboes, rasping brass and silky strings really offered a ravishing sound world.  The standard of playing was remarkably high – not a single brass accident during in the entire evening and intonation throughout the band was always true.  Minasi’s conducting emphasized that classical poise but also felt tremendously physical in that stormy prelude.  Tempi were surprisingly quite leisurely and I’m not completely convinced that the pacing of the later acts was completely successful.  There was a tendency to sag just where the action needed to be driven forward more to the dénouement.  I would say that it’s a work in progress perhaps rather than the finished article but there was definitely much to admire.

Photo: © Jörn Kipping
Photo: © Jörn Kipping

Tonight was something of a mixed bag.  Certainly vocally the show is definitely worth seeing for Trost and Rud and the fine orchestra and chorus.  Dramatically, there were interesting touches but more often than not it felt that Calvario was unwilling to trust his singers to drive the action forward, adding layers of extraneous action whether it be moving hydraulic platforms or some ‘movement’ that felt unnecessary.  Certainly, there were times where it was successful – such as when Oreste was pursued by the furies – and then it created stimulating stage pictures.   I’m sure others will be happy to sacrifice vocal beauty for the dramatic insights that Antonacci offers but in this case, for me, I feel that the music requires an exquisiteness of tone that we didn’t get from her.  We most certainly got it from Trost and Rud and for them, this show is definitely worth seeing.

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One comment

  1. Antonacci has been one of my all time favorite artists and I WAS in the camp that could overlook her vocal flaws. But now her voice has also diminished somewhat in size and carrying power so it’s pretty apparent her best days are very behind her. Waltraud Meier seems to be going through the exact same thing. The voice, always flawed, has noticeably decreased in size and power and so the artistry doesn’t project in the same way it once did. Still wouldn’t be without either of the ladies.

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